Senators blasted the Pentagon on Tuesday for providing police forces with an over abundance of military equipment, which they say laid the groundwork for what unfolded in Ferguson, Mo., last month.
"Tell me what the difference is between an increasingly militarized police force and a standing army,” Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnBiden and AOC's reckless spending plans are a threat to the planet NSF funding choice: Move forward or fall behind DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office MORE (R-Okla.) said during a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the first congressional hearing on the militarization of police.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed deep skepticism about the Defense Department’s 1033 program, which since the 1990s has provided local police departments with more than $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment, including assault rifles, body armor, and armored vehicles.
The Pentagon says the program is intended to help police combat terrorists and drug cartels, but the senators suggested some police departments may be overstepping their authority by using this military equipment for crowd control at riots.
Coburn called the militarization of police an overreaction “on the basis of 9/11.”
"When was the last time that equipment was used for true counterterrorism?” he asked.
But a Pentagon official who testified at the hearing shifted the blame to the police departments that misuse these military weapons.
"We, the Department of Defense [DOD], did not push any of this equipment on local police departments,” said Alan Estevez, the DOD’s principle deputy under secretary of defense for acquisition, who oversees the 1033 program.
The issue of police departments using military-style equipment was thrust into the spotlight in August, when media outlets began broadcasting footage of officers in Ferguson squaring off with protesters following the police shooting of an unarmed black man.
Ferguson officers used armored tanks and machines guns in the response to demonstrations, which began after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in a street confrontation.
Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillLobbying world Ex-Rep. Akin dies at 74 Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights MORE (D-Mo.), who called for the hearing, criticized Ferguson police for creating the appearance of a “war zone” and treating protesters like “enemy combatants” in the suburb of St. Louis.
“I think most Americans were uncomfortable watching a suburban street in St. Louis with vivid images of a war zone,” McCaskill said at the hearing.
"Those lawful, peaceful protesters did not deserve to be treated like enemy combatants,” she added.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulCotton swipes at Fauci: 'These bureaucrats think that they are the science' Paul, Cruz fire back after Fauci says criticism of him is 'dangerous' No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline MORE (R-Ky.) called the Ferguson police’s response to the protests “fundamentally un-American.”
"I think many of us are horrified by the imagines that have come out of Ferguson,” he said.
Paul has been one of the loudest voices from the right calling for the “demilitarization” of police forces around the country, following the Ferguson protests.
He said military weapons and armored vehicles are “inappropriate” for police departments.
“The militarization of police is something that has gotten way out of control,” Paul said.
McCaskill said the Pentagon’s 1033 program is “driving me crazy.”
McCaskill pointed out that in some places local police departments are more heavily armed than the National Guard. In Michigan, a police department with only one full-time officer was given 13 assault weapons, she said.
But what upsets her the most is that, rather than providing old, used weapons to police, more than one-third of the time the Pentagon is giving them new equipment for free.
"What are we doing?” McCaskill asked. "Why are we buying these at the Department of Defense merely to turn around and give it away?"
McCaskill said she would like to see a provision in the program that requires police officers to wear body cameras to “check if it’s being used appropriately.”
The hearing comes as Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) prepares to introduce the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act to “demilitarize” the police.
Johnson’s bill would restrict the sort of equipment — such as assault rifles and grenade launchers — that the Pentagon can transfer to local police departments and require states to track the equipment that police departments do receive.